Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Lightning Bolt (1966)


Italian title: Operazione Goldman
English title: Lightning Bolt
German title: Gemini 13 - Todesstrahlen auf Kap Canaveral (Death Rays on Cape Canaveral)
Director: Anthony Dawson (Antonio Margheriti)
Writers: Alfonso Balcázar ( as Alfred Balcazar) & José Antonio de la Loma
Music: Riz Ortolani
Production companies: Seven Film (Rome)/ B.G.A./ Producciones Cinematograficas Balcázar
An Italy/ Spain co-production

Something fishy is taking place off the coast of Florida. Every NASA rocket test is mysteriously exploding shortly after lift off, and suspicion falls on some signals which seem to be interfering with the rockets, causing these repeated failings. Having cost the government millions of dollars, Professor Rooney (Francisco Sanz) is sent out in a dinghy to investigate, but disappears. It is time to bring in an expert agent: Captain Patricia Flanagan (Diana Lorys). She has a reputation for taking men down, and seems to the the ideal woman for the job. When she walks in to the film she is introduced by her legs. The camera, and the eyes of the men in the scene, follow her legs for quite some time before we finally get to see her face. However, despite the objectification, not helped by the fact that she is also known as Agent 36-22-36, she is tough and is treated with relative respect as she is given her task: head down to Florida, track Professor Rooney and solve the mystery before the next scheduled rocket test. She pulls out a cigarette and is eagerly presented with three lighters. The camera pushes in close as she smiles and then reveals that she prefers to light her own.

Flanagan (Diana Lorys) in a visually suggestive menage-a-quattro
This opening scene would lead one to assume that she will be the hero of this film, and that perhaps Lightning Bolt is going to be like Modesty Blaise (1966, Joseph Losey). This assumption is reinforced when we meet Captain Flanaghan's right-hand man, Lieutenant Harry Sennet (Anthony Eisley). First impressions suggest that he will be the Wille Garvin to her Modesty Blaise, providing muscle and backup whilst she cracks the case. Even the main poster for English-language version of this film (see top) suggests that the main character in this film is a catsuit-wearing female action agent, throwing men around Emma Peel-style.

They head off for Florida, with Harry given unlimited funds enabling him to go undercover as a louche playboy. How this will help solve the mystery is never made exactly clear, but he's happy with his instructions and proceeds to strike up friendships with every babe in a bathing costume, whilst Flanagan does some of her own detective work. 

The pair of them quickly team up to investigate some suspicious characters in the resort. Demonstrating the playful yet chaste nature of their relationship, Flanagan surprises Harry by being in his shower, something which we have seen in a dozen Bond films. As the publicity still below reveals, she never showers completely naked.
Following a lead, they end up in what looks like a grain silo, but the door slams shut and it begins to fill with water. As the level rises Flanagan becomes a damsel-in-distress rather than the super agent we have been lead to believe, and Harry springs into action to save her. At this point in the narrative the focus of the film switches entirely to Harry, and she more or less drops out of the film, only popping up much later on behind a desk. It is almost as if the script was being changed during production to take into account something that had not been planned for, like Diana Lorys was suddenly taken ill. So Harry is thrust into the fore, and this film becomes more like a standard Eurospy film after all. Still, it's a good one, so we mustn't grumble. 

So it falls upon Harry to crack the case, which involves a beer-brewing megalomaniac called Mr Rehte (Folco Lulli) who lives in an underwater lair off the Florida coast, filled with henchmen dressed as Diabolik. He is determined to ruin every single NASA rocket launch, which he achieves using a laser beam, in order to prevent NASA from discovering his own plans to build a giant laser on the moon so that he can destroy any target on Earth he chooses. This is a full-blown James Bond villain, right down to the fun detail that he emits the laser beams from his own beer company trucks parked near Cape Canaveral. 

Testing a miniature version of the laser beam (actually red string)
In his base, Mr Rehte keeps enemies, people of interest, or just employees that have annoyed him, frozen in suspended animation. Kary (Wanda Guida), the blonde bombshell who initially seems to be working for Rehte, emotionally reveals to Harry that her only reason is that her father is one of these popsicle people, and Rehte has threatened to defrost him - TO DEATH - should she displease him. Rehte is a fickle evil genius and does this anyway, reducing her father to a soggy skeleton in a manner of seconds. Kary turns and helps Harry to defeat Rehte, stop the rocket from launching to the moon, and in the process destroy the undersea base. As you can see from the above still she is dressed entirely in black, yet it is evidently supposed to be Kary on the posters. She is handy in a fight, but sadly never actually changes into the red catsuit.

Lightning Bolt is a great film, despite the confusing hero-switch a third of the way through. It delivers everything you expect from a Eurospy film: girls, guns, underwater lairs and an indestructible hero. Margheriti makes excellent use of library footage of real rocket launches, and there is some very impressive miniature work, as one would expect. Most notably, Harry races to Cape Canaveral to stop the latest launch but arrives too late, and is almost killed in the massive explosion, which like Monthly Film Bulletin stated (see below), would surely have burned most of Florida. The film was clearly a hit in Germany as well, as most of the available imagery online is from the German publicity materials. This seems a little odd given that this was not a German co-production, but they obviously loved some Eurospy action. Evidently it was also released on VHS there in the mid-1960s.

Lightning Bolt was distributed in the US in 1967 by the Woolner Brothers, the same company responsible for distributing other Margheriti films including Castle of BloodVariety wrote that Anthony Eisley made "A more than adequate hero, fighting and womanizing in the accepted post-Bond manner." ("Lightning Bolt (Operazione Goldman) Italo - Spanish - Technicolor - Techniscope) Variety, 31 May 1967, p.18) Anthony Eisley was imported from America, where he was mostly familiar to audiences from TV shows like Hawaiian Eye and Perry Mason, but will be recognised by cult film fans for his role in The Wasp Woman (1959, Roger Corman). According to his interview with Tom Weaver for the book Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, Directors, Actors, Moguls and Makeup (2006, McFarland), Margheriti thought Eisley looked too Italian and made him dye his hair blond. It came out slightly red instead and they just went with that instead. Eisley said that his time in Rome making this film was one of the most fun experiences he ever had. 

Variety went on to describe the film as being "professional and rapid, if still standard and uninspired fare." (ibid.)

Monthly Film Bulletin however published a highly favourable review on it's late UK release in March 1968, at the tail-end of the Eurospy boom, where it received an 'A' certificate from the BBFC without cuts:

"The principal attraction here is the quality of the dubbed dialogue - taut, witty, even idiomatic - which raises Operazione Goldman above the general level of Italian science fiction films, while also serving to camouflage what were obviously rather wooden performances from the principle players. Anyone with a taste for fire and brimstone will be well satisfied by the inevitable apocalyptic finale with its torrents of bubbling colored liquids and by the mammoth conflagration at the Cape Kennedy launching pad (which would have actually left little of Florida unsinged). the sets for the underwater city - built in a kind of Martian art nouveau - are particularly attractive. And like the James Bond villains from whom he is freely derived, Rethe is principally photographed from the wrist down: for most of the film we see of him only a hand in sinister juxtaposition to a beer glass."("OPERAZIONE GOLDMAN (Lighting Bolt), Italy/ Spain, 1965" Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1968, p.42)

In the International Spy Film Guide Richard Rhys Davies descibes Lightning Bolt as  "Classic Eurospy rubbish that delights. Great sets, bad SFX, great costumes, tongue-in-cheek performances and a megalomaniac with frozen women and rockets in his giant lair." In Kim Newman's three part "Thirty Years in Another Town: the History of Italian Exploitation" for Monthly Film Bulletin in 1986 he singles out Lightning Bolt as "fast, witty and absurd enough to pass muster." Given that there is no evidence of a home video release in the 1980s, one must assume that Newman was basing this on memories of his own viewing in the late 1960s.

Lightning Bolt, or Operazione Goldman in Italy, was one of the films made during Margheriti's incredible burst of activity around 1966, where he was also working on his Gamma One quadrilogy and still found time to make another Eurospy film, Killers Are Challenged. It is testament to his skills as a director that despite his prolific couple of years the quality did not dip, and this film is one of the most highly-rated and fondly-remembered Eurospy films of the period.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Commander (1988)

Italian title: Il triangolo della paura (The Triangle of Fear)
German title: Der Commander
English title: The Commander
Director: Anthony Dawson (Antonio Margheriti)
Writers: Tito Carpi, Arne Elsholtz & Giacomo Furia
Music: Walter Baumgartner
Production Company: Erwin C. Dietrich/ Ascot Film/ Rome Prestige Film
A Federal Republic of Germany/ Italy co-production

Colby (Lewis Collins) demonstrating one of his main facial expression
Major Colby (Lewis Collins) is a hired gun, who with his small band of mercenaries will go into hostile situations, shoot up loads of guys, and generally save the day. We see this early in the film when they storm a villa to rescue an American family being held by kidnappers or terrorists. Colby is clearly respected by his men, who will follow him anywhere even if it means certain death.

From the right: Colby (Lewis Collins), Mason/ Hiccock (Manfred Lehmann) and their gang of mercenaries
Meanwhile, down a river in an inhospitable jungle, General Dong (Protacio Dee) runs a drugs, weapons and terrorism operation, having just shot his former superior for not being ruthless enough. He takes over the compound and the negotiations with potential business interests, placing bombs in their helicopters if decides not to do business with them after all. Somehow Dong's men have got hold of a CD rom which contains the names of secret agents which he intends to sell to the highest bidder, and which would be a major disaster if it fell into criminal hands (which sounds remarkably like the plot of Skyfall). 

General Dong (Protacio Dee) going in for a kiss, or blowing out birthday candles
Henry Carlson (Donald Pleasence), a cigar-chomping CIA chief based in Berlin decides that the only way to get this CD back is to call in Colby and his guys. Not wanting to hedge his bets, he also brings in one of Hiccock (Manfred Lehmann), one of his best agents. They kidnap one of Colby's former mercenaries called Mason, to whom Hiccock bears a strong resemblance. Hiccock is made to have plastic surgery so he can now fool Colby into thinking he is actually Mason, so that should anything go wrong with the operation, the CD will definitely get back to the CIA.

Sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke. Henry Carlson (Donald Pleasance) showing us how it's done
Meanwhile up in a cliff-top villa on the Amalfi coast, Colonel Mazzarini (Lee Van Cleef) struts around sporting an earring and a straw hat. He's one of the bad guys who trades in the drugs and crime sold by General Dong, and he also wants to get his hands on that CD.

Mazzarini (Lee Van Cleef) wears a straw hat like a pro
Colby gets the gang together, including his former best pal Mason, and also secures the help of local military, including the beautiful Ling (former Filipino beauty queen Chat Silayan) who quickly forms a romantic bond with Mason. 

Ling (Chat Silayan) provides glamour as well as backup
He also employs the assistance of an untrustworthy Frenchman Duclaud (John Steiner), who he finds at a cock-fighting den, to guide them through the jungle. I wonder if he will turn out to be a traitor?

Can you tell whether Duclaud (John Steiner) is French? I'm not sure
With everyone in place, the stage is set for a an adventure as the mercenaries drive huge trucks down perilous muddy jungle tracks (a la Wages of Fear or Sorcerer), fight with local rebels, and eventually storm Dong's base in an explosive finale.

The Commander is the third film in a Margheriti-Lewis Collins jungle trilogy, the other two films being Code Name: Wild Geese (1984) and Kommando Leopard (1985), and was clearly expected to appeal to the same VHS customers who rented Commando (1985, Mark L. Lester, USA: SLM Production Group/ Silver Pictures/ Twentieth Century Fox) and First Blood (1982, Ted Kotcheff, USA: Anabasis N.V./ Elcajo Productions). The plot is overly complicated, as my attempt at a summary might have suggested. An Italian/ German co-production shot for the English market in Italy, Berlin, Thailand and the Philippines with a multi-lingual cast was bound to be an interesting and complicated experience. Things seems to have got lost along the way in the translation, the most glaring being the fact that everyone keeps referring to a "floppy disk" despite it clearly being a CD which is being waved around. That's quite a big difference, and we did know what CDs were in the late 1980s. 

Perhaps the biggest translation mistake is the title itself: The Commander. As you will have noticed in my careful description of the main characters, none of them is a "Commander." Colby is a Major and Dong and Mazzarini are both Colonels. No one is referred to as a Commander at any point. This is something of an embarrassing oversight.

I have searched extensively for any contemporary reviews and can find nothing. The film was released on VHS in 1988 with a 15 certificate by Entertainment in Video, and seems to have gone completely unnoticed. It may have faired better in Germany, but my German is not good enough to be able to tell. A barebones DVD was put out by Arrow in 2012 as part of their short-lived Arrowdrome label and one or two websites did run mostly scathing reviews at the time. According to the BBFC database both released versions feature cuts, but until I make a Margheriti research trip to the BBFC office I am unable to say what material is missing. It's possibly a mistake, but the Arrow release was purportedly cut by 1 minute and six seconds, whereas the VHS release was only cut by seven seconds. Hopefully one day I will be able to clarify how accurate this is. My educated guess is that the uncut film features more cock-fighting.

This is a better film than one might expect, and the print quality is certainly of a higher standard than one might expect for something which was shot for VHS. Margheriti's trademark use of miniatures is in full effect, particularly in the climactic battle at Dong's base. Allegedly this sequence actually reuses some of the special effects shots from Code Name: Wild Geese. Despite the complicated plot, the pacing is good and the cast put in committed performances. The Commander has intrigue, action, romance, excitement and humour, which back in 1988 when you've already seen all the Rambo films would have made this an enjoyable alternative at the video rental shop.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Castle of Blood (1964)

Italian Title: Danza Macabra
French Title: Danse Macabre
US/ UK Title: Castle of Blood
Director: Anthony Dawson (Antonio Margheriti)
Uncredited Director: Sergio Corbucci
Writers: Jean Grimaud (Gianni Grimaldi) & Gordon Wiles Jr. (Bruno Corbucci) (Also possible uncredited work by Sergio Corbucci)
Original Music: Riz Ortalani (Credited as "Ritz Ortalani" in the Woolner Bros US release)
Vulsinia Film/ Ulysse Productions/ Giovanni Addessi Produzione Cinematografica
An Italy/ France co-production

Determined reporter Alan Foster (Georges Rivière) tracks Edgar Allan Poe (Silvano Tranquilli) to a quiet pub on one of his rare visits to London. Poe, missing the traditional goatee beard, is reciting one of his poems to an eager fan, Lord Blackwood (Umberto Raho) and is not too keen on the idea of an interview. Together they discuss the reality of the supernatural with varying degrees of scepticism, until Lord Blackwood suggested that Alan might want to put his money where his mouth is and try spending the night in his castle. Being an impoverished journalist (is there any other kind?) he is unable to make the £100 wager, but can at least offer a tenner. Poe is intrigued, and offers to come on the coach journey to the castle where they can have that interview Allan has been so desperate for. It is not exactly clear where this castle is, although the implication is that we are on the outskirts of London, given that the film's opening credits appear over images of the London skyline, including Tower Bridge and Big Ben.

Selection of screen grabs from the Synapse DVD release
When they arrive at the castle, we are not given a wide angle view, meaning that the size or architecture is never fully revealed. We instead only glimpse parts of the outside through the overgrowth or behind evil-looking tree branches which seem to reach down and attack Allan as he walks through the family cemetery to the entrance. What parts of the castle are revealed suggest a European, Mediterranean, design rather than the more usual British castle we might expect, but it is difficult to tell. One assumes that the entire façade was also part of the set rather than out on location, hence no wide shots, although a matte shot was surely not out of the question.

Alan (Georges Rivière) meets Elisabeth (Barbara Steele) for the first time
Once inside Allan locates a candlestick, lights all the candles in the hallway and starts exploring. Things start to get supernatural almost as soon as the door closes behind him. Ghostly, old-fashioned waltz music echoes down the hall, and Allan traces the source to a closed door, through which we also hear sounds of merriment. When he opens the door the music and the laughter stop, and the room is of course empty. He sits down and begins to play the same tune on the harpsichord, as though it was familiar to him. An outstretched hand touches his shoulder, and he turns, startled, to see the beautiful Elisabeth (Barbara Steele). Relieved that the castle is not uninhabited after all, he instantly falls in love with Elisabeth, the sister of Lord Blackwood, and follows her up to his room. He soon meets some of the castle's other inhabitants as well, including Julia (Margrete Robsahm), who I think is her sister-in-law, an unnamed gardener (probably Giovanni Cianfriglia), and the strange Doctor Carmus (Arturo Dominici), who is performing experiments involving blood and the prolongation of life after physical death through sheer will. He demonstrates this theory to Alan by chopping the head off a live snake, an early example of killing real animals on camera in Italian exploitation cinema which would reach controversial heights in the following decade.

Elisabeth Blackwood (Barbara Steele) wearing one of the lowest-cut dresses known to man
Although initially unwilling to accept Elisabeth's assertion that she is in fact dead, Alan slowly comes to learn that he is trapped in this house, as on each Halloween (or more accurately at midnight going into All Souls Day) those who have died there are forced to relive their dying moments over and over again. Alan gets to witness the Elisabeth's husband being murdered by the jealous gardener, before he too is killed by Julia, who is then stabbed by Elisabeth. He also sees the grisly fates of other visitors, including a honeymooning couple and Doctor Camus himself, who is haunted by a breathing corpse in the castle's crypt. It is possible that this cycle was caused by the doctor's experiments, as they evidently need new blood every year to enable them to keep this tragic afterlife going, in some sort of quasi-scientific explanation which feels more like one of H.P. Lovecraft or Nathaniel Hawthorn's ghost stories than that of Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe (Silvano Tranquilli) and Lord Blackwood (Umberto Raho)
discover Alan's (Georges Rivière) upright corpse
Having spoiled the plot so far, I may as well go ahead and tell you that Alan does not make it out alive, despite his desperate efforts, being stabbed by the gate as he closes it behind him. Instead of winning the bet he joins the ever-growing family of spooks. Lord Blackwood arrives the next morning and duly collects his £10 from the dead body. One has to question Lord Blackwood here, who clearly knows what is going on in his castle, and the certainty of death for anyone who visits, yet he still willingly encourages people to visit. He even invited a couple to honeymoon there! What a guy.

According to Wikipedia, one of the only real sources I can find for any production information, this film exists because producer Giovanni Addessi wanted Sergio Corbucci to make another film to reuse his sets for the comedy The Monk of Monza (Il monaco di Monza, 1963, Sergio Corbucci, Italy: Giovanni Addessi Produzione Cinematografica, Globe Films International). Corbucci commissioned a script from that film's writers, his brother Bruno and Gianni Grimaldi, but scheduling conflicts meant that the film was given to his friend Antonio Margheriti instead. Historian Danny Shipka asserts that Margheriti shot Castle of Blood in 1962 in just fifteen days using a three camera system to save time. This makes this his first gothic horror film, coming before his better known The Long Hair of Death (I lunghi capelli della morte, 1964 (but shot in 1963) Italy: Cinegai S.p.A.) and Horror Castle, aka The Virgin of Nuremberg (La vergine di Norimberga, 1963, Italy: Atlantica Cinematografica Produzione Films). Apparently Corbucci did come in to shoot the scene where Elisabeth is stabbed by the gardener in a jealous rage in front of Alan because of the time constraints. 

Elisabeth is naturally horrified by all the murders
Castle of Blood was cut down for its English-language release, judging by the 35mm US print included as a bonus feature on the Nightmare Castle (Amanti d'oltretomba, 1965, Mario Caiano, Cinematografica EmmeCi) blu ray from Severin. A longer cut incorporating additional material in French, with English subtitles, was put out by Synapse on DVD about fifteen years ago. The differences are significant: 

In the opening scene Edgar Allan Poe's recital of "Berenice" for Lord Blackwood is longer and more graphic. Later, in the carriage to Blackwood's castle, we hear more of the interview, where Poe discusses his feelings with Alan about the poetry and melancholia of death. 

When Elisabeth goes with the her lover into the stables, the dialogue is extended as he tells her that if she goes back to her husband he will kill her. The camera then pushes forward into a close-up of her face as she initially resists, then becomes ecstatic as he kisses her body and moves downward, the suggestion being that he is as skilled with his tongue as he is with his hands. This also explains why he turns up and murders her husband whilst they are in bed later.

Elisabeth (Barbara Steele) enjoying the attentions of the gardener
When the big multiple-murder scene arrives, we also have some additional information which explains why Elisabeth stabbed Julia. After killing the gardener, Julia tries to comfort Elisabeth, revealing her own romantic intentions. Elisabeth exclaims "I don't want you, you hear? I despise you!" Julia is all over Elisabeth, trying to make love to her and explaining that she couldn't bear to see another at her side. That is why Elisabeth stabs her, because of her revulsion at this attempted sapphic seduction. Barbara Steele later claimed:

"That scene was terrible. My costar didn't want to kiss me... she said she couldn't kiss a woman. Margheriti was furious. He told her to just pretend she was kissing her Ugo [her husband, actor Ugo Tognazzi] and not Barbara! I don't know what it looked like on screen; I never saw the picture." (Interviewed for French magazine Midi-Minuit Fantastique, quoted in Shipka, D. 2011, Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France, 1960-1980, McFarland: Jefferson, NC, p. 42)

Towards the end of the film Alan witnesses the arrival of a newly-married couple on their honeymoon (possibly played by Johnny Waters and Merry Powers, names in the credits but which sound made-up. The woman may actually have been Sylvia Sorrente.). They are indeed merry, and waste no time heading up to the bedroom. In the US print we see her start to undress whilst her husband goes to investigate the strange noise from down the corridor. In the French print we see her undress in front of the fire, where she exposes her breasts and walks towards the camera topless.

Sylvia Sorrente undresses in front of the fire whilst her husband is
murdered by a ghost outside
One last possible difference is that I'm sure we see more of the spike piercing Allan's neck than in the US print, but no more than a split second. Assuming that the film was shot in various languages, but given that the leading lady was English, one would imagine that it was always the intention for the film to be distributed internationally in English. It is therefore a pity that the censorship seems to have been made during post-production, with a French release containing the stronger material whilst the English-language dubbing only happening for the family-friendly version. What we really need is for someone to source a French negative and release the film with the full French language track and subtitles, which would be less distracting than the language changing every time the extra material comes along.

The ice-cold beauty of Julia (Margrete Robsahm)
There is one notable mistake in both prints of Castle of Blood, perhaps revealing the quick turnaround of the production: in the opening scene, when Alan goes into the pub, he hovers briefly behind the door before closing it and going down the stairs. As the door swings shut, we see reflected a man wearing what looks like a white lab coat holding a small device which gives out a little puff of smoke. Evidently he was there to help maintain the foggy London atmosphere, but there is no way of not noticing it. And if it's obvious when watching the film on a TV, it must have been even clearer, and the source of much hilarity, when witnessed on a huge cinema screen. Thankfully, as this happens early, it is forgotten once the action begins.

Castle of Blood was picked up for international distribution in 1964 by the Woolner Brothers, former drive-in owners who specialised in 'B' pictures. This film was released on a double-bill with Hercules in the Haunted World (1961, Mario Bava/ Franco Prosperi, Italy: SpA Cinematografica), which would have been a fun night at any drive-in.

Elisabeth and Alan share an intimate moment before things get weird
Castle of Blood received an 'X' certificate from the BBFC in March 1965 following some cuts. I have not been able to ascertain what those cuts were, but at some point in the future I hope to visit their archive and look at all their Margheriti records. Presumably these were cuts in addition to the cuts already made during post-production. I would assume that the snake-decapitation shot was one of those removed. The film was distributed by British Lion, who were a major independent film company at that time. For some reason it appears that the film was not actually exhibited in the UK until mid-1967, receiving a brief mention in The Daily Cinema in July and an unimpressed review in Monthly Film Bulletin in September.

Initially praising the effectiveness of Riccardo Pallottini's camerawork, the reviewer claims this effectiveness is ruined:

"Partly by Ortolani's cliché-ridden score which makes every surprise twist predictable, partly by the heroine's ludicrous Charles Addams make-up, partly by the wooden quality of the dubbed dialogue ('I'm very attracted to you, my dear.'). Essentially, though, the film's weakness lies in its plot; Poe chose to leave this story unpublished during his lifetime, and one can't help feeling that his choice was a sensible one." ("DANZA MACABRA, LA (Castle of Blood), Italy/ France, 1964," MFB September 1967, p.139)

Either the reviewer misunderstood, or this is indeed based on Poe, but I cannot find any reference to this. Poe never wrote a story called "Danza Macabra," or any such variation. He certainly never wrote a story about a man staying in a haunted castle for a bet. There are some claims online that this is based on Poe's story "Night of the Living Dead," but there is no such story. The use of Poe as a character in the framing device is something of a red herring which may have misled audiences into believing that what they are watching did originally come from his fevered imagination. 

The dismissive review from MFB is easy to understand: by 1967 horror cinema had moved on from the stately, composed black and white gothic ghost story and was heading to the more explicit, full-blooded and realistic word of Rosemary's Baby (1968, Roman Polanski, USA: Paramount Pictures Corporation/ William Castle Enterprises), released in the UK in early 1969, and the real Night of the Living Dead (1968, George A. Romero, USA: Image Ten), released in the UK in late 1969. Had Castle of Blood been released in 1964, it may have received a more welcome reception. The film is recognised now as one of Margheriti's finest, with one historian admiring "its atmosphere, stylish direction and skilful delineation of volatile themes." (McCallum, L. 1998, Italian Horror Films of the 1960s: A Critical Catalog of 62 Chillers, McFarland: Jefferson, NC, p.61)

The Classic in Kilburn circa 1945, since demolished. Photo from
I have managed to find one listing for Castle of Blood. It was playing on a late-night double-bill with Revenge of Frankenstein (1958, Terence Fisher, UK: Columbia Pictures/ Hammer Films) at the Classic in Kilburn, on Notting Hill Gate in early January 1971. The show started at 11pm, and was a great Gothic double-bill. We can only dream now of finding cinemas with that kind of programme! Incidentally, earlier that day were screenings of Monte Carlo or Bust! (1969, Ken Annakin/ Sam Itzkovitch, UK/ France/ Italy: Arthur Conn/ Basil Keys Productions/ Champion) and The Italian Job (1969, Peter Collinson, UK: Oakhurst Productions), demonstrating this was clearly a second-run cinema, and was definitely my kind of place.

Whilst watching it began to dawn on me that the hoary old narrative device "stay in a haunted house/ castle as a wager" most likely comes from the Grimm's tale 'The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,' first published in 1819's Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales -- Grimms' Fairy Tales), no. 4. I love that story; it borrows liberally from the already established Gothic tropes of The Castle of Otranto (1764, Horace Walpole) and The Monk: A Romance (1796, Matthew Gregory Lewis), and combines them with the childlike glee of the haunted house as fairground attraction. The story even comes with a ride through a spooky castle on a moving bed, which "rolled on as if six horses were harnessed to it, over thresholds and stairways, up and down." 

'The Haunted Castle' by David Hockney, 1969. Part of a series for "The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear."
Effectively the Brothers Grimm invented the ghost train, which in this context is particularly relevant because the other thing which Castle of Blood brings to mind is Disney's classic ride 'The Haunted Mansion,' which first opened in 1969, but had been in development for a number of years. Like 'The Haunted Mansion' this film features distorting portraits, eerie distant waltz music, disembodied laughter and enough cobwebs and candlesticks to make every spook and ghoul feel right at home. Our hapless hero Alan meets a sympathetic ghost, much like the "Ghost Host" of the ride, and he is forced to witness the last moments in the lives of the castle's previous occupants, which includes couples waltzing around the hall and the arrival of a bride and groom on honeymoon. 'The Haunted Mansion' builds its narrative around a tragic bride, and features an amazing ballroom scene with waltzing ghosts. The castle has long, foreboding corridors and a crypt through which Alan attempts to escape, leading to the cemetery. The way out from 'The Haunted Mansion' involved having to go through the crypt and into the cemetery, which features grasping tree branches and corpses swinging from above. All that is missing from Castle of Blood is a possessed crystal ball and singing ghouls atop the gravestones. Of course I am not saying that Disney ripped this film off, but the similarities seems more than just a coincidence. The ride was in development from 1961, but did not open to the public until 1969, giving the developers plenty of time to catch all the ghostly movies they could for ideas.

I have been obsessed with this ride since I was a child, when my grandparents had the soundtrack album and a super 8 film of the ride itself. I listened to it obsessively, pouring over the images in the accompanying gatefold album, so to recognise elements of it in this film was a real treat.

Like most of the entries on this blog so far, this was a first-time watch for me, and I absolutely adored it. Castle of Blood has leaped up my rankings to become one of my favourite films. It has everything one would want from a gothic horror tale, but with the added perversity of Italian exploitation which had only been hinted at in Roger Corman's Poe films, despite his reliance on psychoanalysis. Given fact that Margheriti was effectively a director for hire on this film, shooting at an astonishing rate, he could be forgiven for churning out something second-rate. Remarkably he demonstrated again that he could make something incredibly creative and atmospheric in such conditions, which would become something of a hallmark for him just a couple of years later when he made all four Gamma One films in a year. According to some sources Margheriti himself was somewhat dismissive of this film, calling it "boring." He seemed to have incorrectly attributed its perceived failings to the fact that it was black and white, and attempted to remedy the problem with a shot-by-shot remake in 1971: Web of the Spider (Nella stretta morsa del ragno, Italy/ France/ West Germany: Paris-Cannes Productions, Produzione DC7, Terra-Filmkunst), featuring Klaus Kinski as Poe. I've not seen this either, but by all accounts it was an experiment which did not work, leaving Castle of Blood as the superior gothic offering.

Over at The Bloody Pit Rod Barnett and John Hudson discussed both films at some length, which is highly recommended. Web of the Spider has just been released on blu ray in America.

Lightning Bolt (1966)